Thursday, July 07, 2005

Why the Terrorists are Winning

...and one simple thing you can do to help beat them

I thought this was telling: I heard an interview on the BBC today with one of the survivors of one of the tube bombings. This fellow was in the last car of the train, and they heard the explosion as a faint boom. The passengers, he said, all just assumed it was one of the many technical glitches that plague the Underground these days. He said everybody remained fairly calm as events wore on, including when smoke started coming in. It was only when they discovered that it was a terrorist attack that people started panicking.

I'm also thinking: there was a subway bombing in Moscow some time back with almost exactly the same number of people killed. In fact, as near a I can tell, the Russians have suffered as much from Islamic terrorism as anybody, what with the Chechnyan civil war and all. I won't get started about the bloody cycle of repression, recrimination and retribution in that conflict, because it seems to me like everybody's "wrong" and it's beside the point. The point is, we didn't suddenly feel terror when Russia is attacked in the same way -- because the bloody TV coverage wasn't there giving non-stop promotion to the terrorists. That there are more people killed in traffic accidents in the London Metro area on a given day only underscoresthe lack of proportionality that a terrorist attack evokes. It's about response, panic, fear. The media don't run non-stop coverage of "London Traffic Deaths mount", do they.

As I understand terrorism as a political tactic, it's entirely designed to wear out a civil populace, and its primary tool is to create fear that will cause insecurity. I agree entirely with the idea that you just don't give in. But one way you just don't give in is to try to downplay terrorism and its effects: giving panic-inducing news coverage to an event just plays into the bad guys' hands. Nothing like making a little man feel big by acting like he's a big man; and that kind of terrrorism is the act of very, very small people.

This may sound a little strange given the current environment, but isn't the most effective technique the Christian one -- to turn the other cheek? I think this is one of Jesus' teachings that is often misinterpreted. "Turn the other cheek" doesn't mean you invite more punishment, or make yourself into a martyr. It's that you face tyranny and injury by not caring -- by showing, through indifference, what kind of contempt you have for the act of trying to put you down. And by refusing to be put down, you in turn cannot be put down.

Speaking of Which...

Bush's response to this attack was a repeat of his usual mantra of 'we'll hunt down the terrorists and bring them to justice' spiel. Which makes me wonder...where's Osama?

One of the curious things I find about the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings is the lack of interest in the news coverage about the arrest and trial of many persons involved with this. The Spanish, with whatever international help they received, seems to have done a very good job at rounding up a lot of the guilty parties and sending them through the judicial system. Meanwhile, in the US we still have a grand total of zero convictions related to the 9/11 attacks. Any of the principals we've caught have been disappeared into our interrogation system, or Guantanamo, or wherever; the few actual prosecutions have been hampered by this insistence on maintaining secrecy of the sources of evidence, and in some cases unwillingness to put prisoners in this mysterious detention areas on the stand.

It seems clear that worrying about intelligence sources about an event that is now three and a half years in the past is pointless given how Al-Qaeda has divided up into these splinter cells -- who knows how many of these are copycats, without any real ties to the original terrorist conspirators? So why not do what the Spanish are doing, and prosecute them in the light of day, with all the public humiliation and vilification such criminals deserve? Is it not better to have, say, Sadaam Hussein shown to be a venal and ridiculous person and not some mysterious ogre? Why not the same for Osama and his henchmen and followers?

That, to me, seems to be the best course to take to win the "war" on terrorism. When we catch them, do what Bush seems to always say we should do -- bring them to justice, American and Western-style, which is in the court system. When we don't catch them, don't overreact. Reactionary behavior is what revolutionaries try to bring about. I believe that a demonstration of openness and the transparency of our justice system is an appropriate antidote to the attempt to panic us with fear. The judicial system, at its best, is the ultimate in rationality.

This press of instant reaction is just the opposite -- an appeal to pure emotion, which is in and of itself the stuff of the 24/7 media cycle -- and just what the terrorists want. It seems to me, in the strangest turn your cheek sort of way, that the best tactic we have individually is to ignore the terrorist attacks. I thought another radio interview, with a man in New York riding the subway there today, on NPR, was perfect. The guy said, he can't worry about a terrorist attack and stop riding the subway, because his odds personally of being killed in a car were way, way higher than being killed in a subway attack. I think he's right, and has the right attitude. You say the hell with them by ignoring them.

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